Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Know Your Enemy: Ferris State

The first full weekend series between RPI and Ferris State has likely been in the workings ever since Ferris State alum Seth Appert was named as RPI's 12th head coach back in 2006. Appert told WaP during the 2009-10 season that he'd been working to get his alma mater on the schedule for a while, but he hadn't been able to make the schedules match up properly. Looks like the stars have finally aligned, with Appert set to make his homecoming in October.

Ferris State
Nickname: Bulldogs
Location: Big Rapids, MI
Founded: 1884
Conference: CCHA
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2003
Last Frozen Four: None
Coach: Bob Daniels (20th season)
2010-11 Record: 18-16-5 (12-12-4-3 CCHA)
Series: Ferris State leads, 1-0-0
First Game: January 23, 1998 (Big Rapids, MI)
Last RPI win: None
Last FSU win: January 23, 1998 (Big Rapids, MI)

2011-12 games: October 14-15, 2011 (Big Rapids, MI)

Key players: D Chad Billins, sr.; F Jordie Johnston, sr.; G Taylor Nelson, sr.; D Aaron Schmit, sr.; D Brett Wysopal, sr.; F Eric Alexander, jr; F Kyle Bonis, jr.; F Matthew Kirzinger, jr.; F Travis Ouellette, jr.; D Scott Czarnowczan, so.; F Justin Buzzeo, fr.

Here's the story with Ferris State: it's a state school named after its founder in a city roughly the size of Plattsburgh and a student population about the size of UAlbany (larger than the town's permanent population) about 50 miles north of Grand Rapids. It does not appear as though the founder, former Michigan Governor Woodbridge Nathan Ferris, is related to prominent RPI alumnus George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., inventor of the Ferris wheel.

Varsity hockey at Ferris State began in 1975, when the school was a member of the NAIA. They played four years under the NAIA banner. In 1978, as the school prepared to move from the NAIA to the NCAA, the Bulldogs joined the nascent CCHA, at the time a small regional conference with only Ohio State and Bowling Green as full Division I schools, finishing in last place as an associate member in the 1978-79 season but rebounding the next year.

The Bulldogs had two very successful seasons in their second and third seasons in the CCHA, winning 20 games in each year, including 26 in 1980, which would be a school record for more than 20 years. Both years, they finished a respectable third in the six team league.

1981, however, brought significant changes to the CCHA, growing its stature as a league but putting the Bulldogs largely behind the eight-ball with some very tough, powerful programs joining up. Most notably, Michigan and Michigan State joined the league, although further down the road the additions of Notre Dame and Miami proved equally daunting. While the addition of these top programs added prestige to the league, it also made things difficult for some of the smaller schools.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Ferris State frequently struggled to keep up in the newer, more powerful league even as Lake Superior State started its dynasty in the late 1980s. Despite the hiring of Cornell coach Dick Bertrand in 1982, the Bulldogs endured 10 consecutive losing seasons during the 1980s.

Under Bob Mancini in 1991, the Bulldogs, led by future NHLers Dave Karpa and John Gruden, snapped out of their funk with a 21-win season, finishing 3rd in the conference for the first time since the 1981 expansion. But Mancini only stuck around in Big Rapids for two seasons, leaving in 1992 to take over at Michigan Tech.

Mancini's replacement, Bob Daniels, brought some much needed stability to the program, for the most part keeping the Bulldogs at least fairly competitive in the CCHA even if not always able to overcome the conference's beasts. The Bulldogs won 21 games in his first season of 1992-93, and while they would not be able to put together another winning season until 2000, the truly poor seasons in Big Rapids were fewer and more far between than they had been in the 1980s. It was during this stretch that two goaltenders who eventually became D-I head coaches, Seth Appert and Jeff Blashill, were roommates at Ferris State.

Ask any Ferris State fan what their best season was and the answer is going to be unanimous: 2003. Led by Hobey Baker finalist Chris Kunitz, who has since produced a solid NHL career, the Bulldogs climbed to the top of the CCHA, finishing on top of the regular season table for the first time in school history, besting Michigan by six points during a 22-5-1 CCHA season. Though they lost the CCHA Championship Game to the Wolverines, the Bulldogs still gained their first NCAA tournament appearance, coming just a game away from the Frozen Four as they defeated North Dakota 5-2 before falling 7-4 against a Minnesota team that was not only the defending national champions, but were on their way to becoming the first back-to-back national champs in 30 years, and were playing on their home ice to boot. They finished the year with an impressive record of 31-10-1.

The team has yet to return to that lofty pinnacle. The following season, Ferris State plummeted to 10th in the 12-team CCHA, and did not register another winning season until 2008. More recently, the Bulldogs have been generally solid while not quite approaching the top of the CCHA again. There is recent cause for optimism, however. In 2010 and 2011, the team registered consecutive winning seasons for the first time since the CCHA's expansion, making three winning seasons in the last four. Both years, they were a bubble team for a second NCAA bid.

A major reason for the Bulldogs' relative success in the last two years, unfortunately for them, has graduated: goaltender Pat Nagle, who anchored a Ferris State defense that was among the Top 10 defenses in the nation in each of the last two seasons. That defense could take a step back without him, but at the same time, the returning defensive corps is chock full of experienced blueliners (including three prominent seniors and five total), most of whom help out the Bulldogs offensively as well.

With Nagle gone, the goaltending duties will likely fall to senior Taylor Nelson, who split time with Nagle in 2009 and 2010 before being relegated to backup for much the same reason Bryce Merriam didn't see much action in 2011 - the other goaltender had the team on his back.

Offensively, the Bulldogs didn't have any individual players put up striking numbers - leading scorer Travis Ouellette returns for his junior year with just 21 points last season and the only Bulldog to reach double digits in goals with just 10, but while Ferris State didn't have individuals lighting the lamp with abandon, as a team they spread the scoring around very well: 14 different players had at least 10 points, including six defensemen. That tends to require opposing teams to focus less on stopping individuals and more on a game plan that can stop anyone.

This series in Michigan, besides being a homecoming for Seth Appert, should prove to be another good challenge for RPI's young forwards. It's not exactly the easiest road trip for fans (even diehards) to make, but this should be a couple of interesting games that could help decipher exactly what the Engineers are capable of this season.

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